The count told half a truth when he spoke to Jenny of his marriage. Sauvresy and he had discussed the subject, and if the matter was not as ripe as he had represented, there was at least some prospect of such an event. Sauvresy had proposed it in his anxiety to complete his work of restoring Hector to fortune and society.
One evening, about a month before the events just narrated, he had led Hector into the library, saying:
"Give me your ear for a quarter of an hour, and don't answer me hastily. What I am going to propose to you deserves serious reflection."
"Well, I can be serious when it is necessary."
"Let's begin with your debts. Their payment is not yet completed, but enough has been done to enable us to foresee the end. It is certain that you will have, after all debts are paid, from three to four hundred thousand francs."
Hector had never, in his wildest hopes, expected such success.
"Why, I'm going to be rich," exclaimed he joyously.
"No, not rich, but quite above want. There is, too, a mode in which you can regain your lost position."
"A mode? what?"
Sauvresy paused a moment, and looked steadily at his friend.
"You must marry," said he at last.
This seemed to surprise Hector, but not disagreeably.
"I, marry? It's easier to give that advice than to follow it."
"Pardon me - you ought to know that I do not speak rashly. What would you say to a young girl of good family, pretty, well brought up, so charming that, excepting my own wife, I know of no one more attractive, and who would bring with her a dowry of a million?"
"Ah, my friend, I should say that I adore her! And do you know such an angel?"
"Yes, and you too, for the angel is Mademoiselle Laurence Courtois."
Hector's radiant face overclouded at this name, and he made a discouraged gesture.
"Never," said he. "That stiff and obstinate old merchant, Monsieur Courtois, would never consent to give his daughter to a man who has been fool enough to waste his fortune."
Sauvresy shrugged his shoulders.
"Now, there's what it is to have eyes, and not see. Know that this Courtois, whom you think so obstinate, is really the most romantic of men, and an ambitious old fellow to boot. It would seem to him a grand good speculation to give his daughter to the Count Hector de Tremorel, cousin of the Duke of Samblemeuse, the relative of the Commarins, even though you hadn't a sou. What wouldn't he give to have the delicious pleasure of saying, Monsieur the Count, my son-in-law; or my daughter, Madame the Countess Hector! And you aren't ruined, you know, you are going to have an income of twenty thousand francs, and perhaps enough more to raise your capital to a million."
Hector was silent. He had thought his life ended, and now, all of a sudden, a splendid perspective unrolled itself before him. He might then rid himself of the patronizing protection of his friend; he would be free, rich, would have a better wife, as he thought, than Bertha; his house would outshine Sauvresy's. The thought of Bertha crossed his mind, and it occurred to him that he, might thus escape a lover who although beautiful and loving, was proud and bold, and whose domineering temper began to be burdensome to him.
"I may say," said he, seriously to his friend, "that I have always thought Monsieur Courtois an excellent and honorable man, and Mademoiselle Laurence seems to me so accomplished a young lady, that a man might be happy in marrying her even without a dowry."
"So much the better, my dear Hector, so much the better. But you know, the first thing is to engage Laurence's affections; her father adores her, and would not, I am sure, give her to a man whom she herself had not chosen."
"Don't disturb yourself," answered Hector, with a gesture of triumph, "she will love me."
The next day he took occasion to encounter M. Courtois, who invited him to dinner. The count employed all his practised seductions on Laurence, which were so brilliant and able that they were well fitted to surprise and dazzle a young girl. It was not long before the count was the hero of the mayor's household. Nothing formal had been said, nor any direct allusion or overture made; yet M. Courtois was sure that Hector would some day ask his daughter's hand, and that he should freely answer, "yes;" while he thought it certain that Laurence would not say "no."
Bertha suspected nothing; she was now very much worried about Jenny, and saw nothing else. Sauvresy, after spending an evening with the count at the mayor's, during which Hector had not once quitted the whist-table, decided to speak to his wife of the proposed marriage, which he thought would give her an agreeable surprise. At his first words, she grew pale. Her emotion was so great that, seeing she would betray herself, she hastily retired to her boudoir. Sauvresy, quietly seated in one of the bedroom arm-chairs, continued to expatiate on the advantages of such a marriage - raising his voice, so that Bertha might hear him in the neighboring room.
"Do you know," said he, "that our friend has an income of sixty thousand crowns? We'll find an estate for him near by, and then we shall see him and his wife every day. They will be very pleasant society for us in the autumn months. Hector is a fine fellow, and you've often told me how charming Laurence is.
Bertha did not reply. This unexpected blow was so terrible that she could not think clearly, and her brain whirled.
"You don't say anything," pursued Sauvresy. "Don't you approve of my project? I thought you'd be enchanted with it."
She saw that if she were silent any longer, her husband would go in and find her sunk upon a chair, and would guess all. She made an effort and said, in a strangled voice, without attaching any sense to her words:
"Yes, yes; it is a capital idea."
"How you say that! Do you see any objections?"
She was trying to find some objection, but could not.
"I have a little fear of Laurence's future," said she at last.
"I only say what I've heard you say. You told me that Monsieur Tremorel has been a libertine, a gambler, a prodigal - "
"All the more reason for trusting him. His past follies guarantee his future prudence. He has received a lesson which he will not forget. Besides, he will love his wife."
"How do you know?"
"Barbleu, he loves her already."
" Who told you so?"
And Sauvresy began to laugh about Hector's passion, which he said was becoming quite pastoral.
"Would you believe," said he, laughing, "that he thinks our worthy Courtois a man of wit? Ah, what spectacles these lovers look through! He spends two or three hours every day with the mayor. What do you suppose he does there?"
Bertha, by great effort, succeeded in dissembling her grief; she reappeared with a smiling face. She went and came, apparently calm, though suffering the bitterest anguish a woman can endure. And she could not run to Hector, and ask him if it were true!
For Sauvresy must be deceiving her. Why? She knew not. No matter. She felt her hatred of him increasing to disgust; for she excused and pardoned her lover, and she blamed her husband alone. Whose idea was this marriage? His. Who had awakened Hector's hopes, and encouraged them? He, always he. While he had been harmless, she had been able to pardon him for having married her; she had compelled herself to bear him, to feign a love quite foreign to her heart. But now he became hateful; should she submit to his interference in a matter which was life or death to her?
She did not close her eyes all night; she had one of those horrible nights in which crimes are conceived. She did not find herself alone with Hector until after breakfast the next day, in the billiard-hall.
"Is it true?" she asked.
The expression of her face was so menacing that he quailed before it. He stammered:
"True - what?"
He was silent at first, asking himself whether he should tell the truth or equivocate. At last, irritated by Bertha's imperious tone, he replied:
She was thunderstruck at this response. Till then, she had a glimmer of hope. She thought that he would at least try to reassure her, to deceive her. There are times when a falsehood is the highest homage. But no - he avowed it. She was speechless; words failed her.
Tremorel began to tell her the motives which prompted his conduct. He could not live forever at Valfeuillu. What could he, with his habits and tastes, do with a few thousand crowns a year? He was thirty; he must, now or never, think of the future. M. Courtois would give his daughter a million, and at his death there would be a great deal more. Should he let this chance slip? He cared little for Laurence, it was the dowry he wanted. He took no pains to conceal his meanness; he rather gloried in it, speaking of the marriage as simply a bargain, in which he gave his name and title in exchange for riches. Bertha stopped him with a look full of contempt.
"Spare yourself," said she. "You love Laurence."
He would have protested; he really disliked her.
"Enough," resumed Bertha. "Another woman would have reproached you; I simply tell you that this marriage shall not be; I do not wish it. Believe me, give it up frankly, don't force me to act."
She retired, shutting the door violently; Hector was furious.
"How she treats me!" said he to himself. "Just as a queen would speak to a serf. Ah, she don't want me to marry Laurence!" His coolness returned, and with it serious reflections. If he insisted on marrying, would not Bertha carry out her threats? Evidently; for he knew well that she was one of those women who shrink from nothing, whom no consideration could arrest. He guessed what she would do, from what she had said in a quarrel with him about Jenny. She had told him, "I will confess everything to Sauvresy, and we will be the more bound together by shame than by all the ceremonies of the church."
This was surely the mode she would adopt to break a marriage which was so hateful to her; and Tremorel trembled at the idea of Sauvresy knowing all.
"What would he do," thought he, "if Bertha told him? He would kill me off-hand - that's what I would do in his place. Suppose he didn't; I should have to fight a duel with him, and if I killed him, quit the country. Whatever would happen, my marriage is irrevocably broken, and Bertha seems to be on my hands for all time."
He saw no possible way out of the horrible situation in which he had put himself.
"I must wait," thought he.
And he waited, going secretly to the mayor's, for he really loved Laurence, He waited, devoured by anxiety, struggling between Sauvresy's urgency and Bertha's threats. How he detested this woman who held him, whose will weighed so heavily on him! Nothing could curb her ferocious obstinacy. She had one fixed idea. He had thought to conciliate her by dismissing Jenny. It was a mistake. When he said to her:
"Bertha, I shall never see Jenny again."
She answered, ironically:
"Mademoiselle Courtois will be very grateful to you!"
That evening, while Sauvresy Was crossing the court-yard, he saw a beggar at the gate, making signs to him.
"What do you want, my good man?"
The beggar looked around to see that no one was listening.
"I have brought you a note," said he, rapidly, and in a low tone. "Iwas told to give it, only to you, and to ask you to read it when you are alone."
He mysteriously slipped a note, carefully sealed, into Sauvresy's hand.
"It comes from pretty girl," added he, winking.
Sauvresy, turning his back to the house, opened it and read:
"Sir-You will do a great favor to a poor and unhappy girl, if you will come to-morrow to the Belle Image, at Corbeil, where you will be awaited all day.
"Your humble servant,
There was also a postscript.
"Please, sir, don't say a word of this to the Count de Tremorel."
"Ah ha," thought Sauvresy, "there's some trouble about Hector, that's bad for the marriage."
"I was told, sir," said the beggar, "there would be an answer."
"Say that I will come," answered Sauvresy, throwing him a franc piece.
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